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Cloning raises ethics questions

Andrew Thagard | Wednesday, March 3, 2004

When South Korean scientists announced last month that they had cloned an early stage human embryo, some hailed the success as the first step toward “the age of human cloning” and subsequent cures to debilitating diseases. But Notre Dame science and humanities professors said the announcement also raises new moral and ethical concerns. Lead researchers Wook Suk Hwang and Sin Yong Moon of the Seoul National University made the announcement Feb. 12 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Their findings were published the following day in the journal “Science.” News of the cloning brought vocal but mixed reactions from fellow scientists, politicians and religious leaders around the world – some wary of the implications of such a breakthrough, others cautiously optimistic that the technology can be used to treat diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.The scientists produced the clone by first collecting donated human eggs. Each egg contains what is called a haploid nucleus, composed of half the chromosomes found in somatic or body cell nuclei. During fertilization, this nucleus fuses with that of a sperm cell to regenerate a complete genome.The Korean team instead removed the haploid nucleus and replaced it with one from a surrounding cumulus cell using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technology.The cell divided and grew until it became a blastocyst, an early stage of embryonic development, at which point the researchers harvested a pluripotent embryonic stem cell line.The results are significant because the derived stem cell line can potentially develop into almost any tissue within the body through the use of therapeutic cloning. The same technology, however, could conceivably be used in reproductive cloning to generate a human clone.”I think this opens up a new set of issues,” said Phillip Sloan, chairman of the Program of Liberal Studies and a specialist in the history and philosophy of life science.The announcement raises ethical concerns about the morality of creating an embryo for the sole purpose of harvesting tissue and fears that the scientific community may be unable to control the direction of the research.”I’m certainly a person who is pro-science and pro-scientific research, but I think there are limits the scientific community needs to impose on itself,” Sloan said. “What is the line that separates the kind of cloning that has been developed by the Korean team for medical benefit and a subsequent growing of embryos to a later stage of development to harvest other parts for medical use?”The advancement could also lead rogue scientists to pursue reproductive cloning – an unlikely but possible consequence of the new technology, said Harvey Bender, a biology professor and director of the Human Genetics Program at Notre Dame.”Is there going to be some unscrupulous, idiot dictator that would use it to copy himself? It’s possible,” Bender said.”It would be excruciatingly expensive to use this willy-nilly for reproduction,” he said, adding that the low success rate of the process – about one in 20 in the Korean research – presents additional difficulties.But the issue raises more practical moral questions, as well. The cloned blastocyst, for example, represents a sort of curve ball to moral ethicists. Because the cells contain no genetic contribution from either a sperm or an egg, some could question whether it was even an embryo at all according to the traditional definition.”In the case of the Korean cloning, there is no dad or mom. There is no fertilization in the historical sense,” Bender said. “It’s a new wrinkle for [moral ethicists] to grapple with.” The news, Bender said, also brings exciting new possibilities for medicine.”[The goal is to] develop specific tissues to overcome deficiencies in patients suffering from [diseases like] diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The idea is replacement tissue rather than replacement people,” he said “There are hundreds of patients with hemoglobin problems – to be able to overcome that is very exciting.”Still, Sloan cautioned, the announcement may push future research down a slippery slope. After Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997 the assumption – at least within the United States and European Union – was that human cloning would not be pursued, he said. Now it has been done, raising possibilities of harvesting tissue from later stage embryos or even reproductive cloning in the future.And while Sloan said he prefers that the scientific community implement some form of internal regulation, more announcements like that from the Korean team could prompt outside intervention.”The ball is in the scientists’ court right now,” he said. “If there isn’t sufficient self-regulation and a recognition of the moral questions now raised by humanists, then it is [likely] that external legislation will be needed.”